U.S. overdose deaths post annual drop for first time in two decades

(Reuters) - U.S. overdose deaths dropped last year for the first time in nearly two decades, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said on Wednesday, in a sign that a nationwide epidemic of drug-related deaths is abating.

FILE PHOTO: Law enforcement officers unload part of approximately 3,200 lbs. of cocaine, which was seized at the Port of New York/Newark on February 28, 2019 in a joint operation involving U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), the U.S. Coast Guard (USCG), Homeland Security Investigations (HSI), the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), the New York Police Department (NYPD), and the New York State Police (NYSP), in Newark, New Jersey, U.S., in this image released on March 11, 2019. Courtesy U.S. Customs and Border Protection/Handout via REUTERS

About 68,500 Americans died of a drug overdose in 2018, compared with about 72,000 the year prior, a 5% decrease, according to the CDC’s provisional data.

The drop marks the first time that the number of overdose-related deaths has fallen since 1999.

Some physicians describe the decrease as “encouraging,” but not worthy of celebrating.

“Overdose deaths are only one method to measure the epidemic,” said Anna Lembke, professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford University and author of “Drug Dealer, MD – How Doctors Were Duped, Patients Got Hooked, and Why It’s So Hard to Stop.”

Lembke said the number of people battling substance abuse was another crucial metric in evaluating progress in fighting the epidemic. That data is not included in the CDC’s figures.

But the number of people with a substance use disorder has also dropped. An estimated 19.7 million American adults battled a substance use disorder in 2017, compared with 20.1 million in 2016, according to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health.

While the number of overdose deaths fell as a whole, the CDC data shows that deaths involving cocaine and psychostimulants like methamphetamine and MDMA have actually risen from 2017 to 2018.


National Center for Health Statistics 2019.